Who Should Decide Your College Major?

As an incoming freshman at IU, you are given a seemingly unending list of potential majors, ranging from animal behavior to the bassoon. Selecting the “best” major is a complex balancing act in which you must consider your interests, future job prospects, and how much effort you’re willing to put into studying for at least four years. Fortunately, I had a relatively good idea of what I wanted study and started with a Political Science major. But like 50 percent of undergraduates, political science wouldn’t be my ultimate academic path. For some reason, I got it into my head that adding Germanic Studies and History majors would be a good idea. (No, I don’t recommend triple majoring.) Once I graduated, I realized that I did not acquire enough marketable skills to find a decent job, so I ended up returning to IU as a SPEA masters student to study policy analysis and education. At least from my experience as a naïve undergrad, as well as a financial aid advisor, new college students do not have enough real world experience to make well informed decisions that will affect their adult lives. It’s also difficult to understand how soul crushing student loans can be until you start getting those monthly reminder emails from federal loan servicers or Sallie Mae.

This begs the question, who should choose your major? Perhaps the vicissitudes of the market should inform your decision. Or perhaps mom and dad should provide sage advice. Maybe the federal government, through grant programs, can cajole you into studying STEM subjects. (Note: IU’s SMART grant program for critical language and STEM subject students was cut several years ago.)

Celine James, from onlinecolleges.net, gives us some insights about how public policy can affect students’ decision making process. Based on a historical analysis, an international comparison, and recent vocational-oriented policies, she concludes, “as a student, your earning income and long-term job prospects should weigh heavily in the decisions you make about majors, degrees and programs. But remember, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, and you should weigh the research with your own personal interests and needs.” More of her analysis can be found here.

Mike Poletika


EDPOSA “Film Series”: Seven Up!

In 1964, Paul Almond began a film series intended to test the Jesuit proverb, “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Set in England, this series looks at how a child’s socioeconomic status–or, in the English context, class–impacts his or her political and social world view and ultimate class standing as an adult. The producers selected 13 seven-year-olds from varying social classes, ranging from old-moneyed, upper-class children to orphans, and filmed the children’s interaction at a party, in addition to conducting interviews. From this initial interview, we can see how a child’s class standing, and the attendant privileges and hindrances, profoundly impacts the child’s ultimate socioeconomic status. The series follows up  with each interviewee every seven years to determine if the Jesuits were indeed correct. So far, there eight instalments, and the “children” were 56 during the last interview.

So as not to either positively or negatively influence your opinion of the film makers approach, I will not provide any specific details about characterizations of the children or the overarching theme. Though, please be aware of the producers’ general thesis, “Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” After the first episode, you quickly see in which direction the subsequent episodes are headed.

For the next eight weeks, Youtube videos will be posted for each episode, so you can see if Suzy, Charley, John, etc. either conform to the pressures of their childhood class standing, or rise above expectations. Alternatively, you can watch the entire series on Netflix.

For full disclosure, I must admit that this is a highly addictive series. Once you start watching it, you likely won’t be able to stop. In essence, this is The Truman Show, but without the horrific ethical issues.

Mike Poletika

An Education: From the Bronx to Banks to Beyond

My dad is my hero. That’s not a secret, or a big revelation, especially given the regard in which I talk about him. He’s achieved a lot in his life, though his story is one built by a series of events, and, as he admits, a lot of luck. But, in this brief telling of his story, I want to highlight the educational opportunities that he was presented with–though some were denied. I offer this story as one that could apply to many people–but one that defines later generations, though it began in the early 1950’s.

My dad was born into one of the poorest sections of the country, the South Bronx, in the post-WWII era. His first house was a ‘quonset hut,’ little more than a piece of lightweight galvanized steel bent into an arch, and he “moved up” to the projects when he was a few years older. For a kid from the Bronx, there wasn’t much to look forward to other than the next New York Yankees baseball game, as the neighborhood then was leading up to what would be a period of decline through the 1960’s and then burning through the 1970’s.

For my dad, there were few escapes–work, which he began while attending school full time–and school. He showed talent in the classroom (except in languages, which came into play later), and when it came time for high school, he tested into Stuyvesant High School, one of the premier public schools in the city and even the country. Most parents would have been overwhelmed with joy if their son had tested into Stuyvesant–his ticket to a better future–but my dad was denied this by his mother for reasons escaping comprehension. Instead, he was to attend  Taft High School, which would, within a few years after my dad graduated, be recognized as a “failing school.” Through this, my dad was able to maintain optimism, and graduated at the age of 16, having skipped a grade in middle school.

He got out of the house as soon as he could, and began taking classes at Bronx Community College, now a subsidiary of the City College system. It was there that, on a field trip, he got an opportunity to go to Washington D.C., the first time he’d ever been out of the New York City metro. This stoked, in him, an already-engrained sense of public service–one that had inspired his own father to volunteer for World War II, where he served in Northern Africa. Because of that trip, and with the war in Vietnam escalating, he decided to enlist in the military, specifically, the Air Force. Turned out, he soon found out, they would be willing to pay for his education at a 4-year institution.

The first step in enlisting was taking an aptitude test, where my father, who had admittedly not been a great student of either foreign language (French & Spanish) he had tried in high school, was told that he had a “remarkable ability for languages.” He was given three choices for career path–air policeman, cook, or, finally, intelligence. The choice for the latter was obvious, and intended by the Air Force recruiter–they wanted him in intelligence.

In those days, though Vietnam was the focus, the Cold War with the-then Soviet Union was burning hot. Just a few years removed from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the split for intelligence services was between those needing skills in Russian and those needing skills in Vietnamese. The luck was on my dad’s side–those with last names beginning with letters A through L were  sent to Syracuse University to learn Russian, while those M to Z were sent elsewhere to study Vietnamese. With a last name like “Luboff”, he was the very last name on the first list–so he went to Syracuse. Many times, he’s told of how if he had been on the other list–of those being sent to study Vietnamese–he would not have been able to find a job later in life given the language specialty. The luck continued. While serving in the Air Force intelligence service for 6 years, he was also given the opportunity to study towards his Master’s Degree in Russian Studies.

Upon completing his tour of duty, he returned to the United States, where his Russian language skills turned him into an “East-West trade ‘expert’“. It was this label–the result of the education he had been given the opportunity to pursue–that sent him on a thirty-year career in private sector banking & international trade finance. But this kid from the Bronx–who had faced economic hardship–didn’t forget his commitment to public service even after all of that, returning to public sector service with the State of Illinois in the early 2000’s, helping minority business-owners gain access to lending markets.

Continuing the legacy of educational opportunities, my dad has been able to help, in addition to scholarships and self-funding, the education of two kids, myself and my sister, through the Master’s level in two different fields–for both of us to graduate debt-free. Educational opportunity isn’t just about helping the generation immediately receiving aid–it’s about the generations to come, as well. It’s about the society that benefits from a kid from the Bronx growing up to help business-owners that may often be denied traditional lending to create their own American dream. It’s about an economy that benefits from lifetimes of with civic-minded career paths that are able to access the best of our educational system. I can say, without a doubt that I’ve personally benefited from the public education that my dad got through Bronx Community, through the funding he received in Air Force ROTC at Syracuse, and through the continuing education he got through the Italian-branch of the University of Arkansas when he was stationed abroad.

We shouldn’t look to create just opportunities for educational enhancement–we should look to create “legacies” of education–for generations to come.

Alex Luboff

Higher Education Fundraising Panel

Last semester EDPOSA collaborated with the Nonprofit Management Association (NMA) to host an event that focused on the state and challenges of higher education fundraising. To understand this topic, we brought in practitioners who work for various institutions including IU’s Kelley School of Business, the IU Foundation, DePauw University, and The Center on Philanthropy. The panel of practitioners brought interesting, diverse and valuable insight, and one issue that came to light during the discussion was that fundraising was not a career any of the panelists anticipated pursuing. This fact was highlighted by each panelist’s different way of arriving at his or her current position. However, all of the panelists had a common denominator in their interests, and that was education. The value of fundraising for education institutions cannot be overstated, and each panelist touched on the worthy cause for which he or she works. They all considered it a privilege and a critical duty to raise money for such essential institutions. In light of diminishing state funds for higher education, effective fundraisers are more critical than ever. The guidance that these panelists provided helped students in the room better understand what to do to be effective fundraisers for their current and future employers.

Laura Beth Griffith

Miss Matulis, Thank You

After watching Won’t Back Down at EDPOSA’s movie night kick-off, I reflected on the media’s portrayal of teachers. Perhaps it is selective perception, but it seems like we are constantly reminded that the teaching force is incompetent, unmotivated, and cares more about the paycheck than the student. While there is certainly some merit to this description–think New York City’s “rubber rooms”–the vast majority of teachers truly do care about their students and work tireously to make sure they are on track to have happy, successful lives. Like most students, I had both types of teachers.

During fourth grade, I was placed in a classroom with a nightmare teacher; one who fits all of the negative stereotypes found in Won’t Back Down. She simply didn’t care. My two most distinctive memories from Mrs. ______’s class were learning how to shuffle cards (in order to play blackjack) and reading our science textbook as a class, in unison. Not only was she poor pedagogically, she was darn right mean. Most mornings my mother would have to drag me out of bed to spend the day with a woman who terrified me. Fortunately my parents are well educated and supplemented the (lack of) instruction I received at school. But for most families this simply isn’t an option, as we saw in the movie.

The next year, fifth grade, I had truly inspirational teacher. Miss Matulis re-engaged my love of learning and set me on a path that I would might have otherwise missed. As a first year teacher, she had that youthful energy we all know and appreciate. We wrote a book about the Civil War, conducted experiments on worms, and did a project in which we each created our own nation. (Mine was Dogville and our chief export was Brittany Spaniels.) As you can imagine, I loved fifth grade and was sad to move on to high school. But Miss Matulis did her job, and did it very well.

Over Thanksgiving break, my mother found my old report cards from fourth and fifth grades. To look at comments written by each teacher is truly amazing. For virtually every subject, Mrs. ____ wrote demeaning, negative comments, even though I was one of the strongest students in class! In contrast, Miss Matulis wrote kind and encouraging comments, telling me that she believed in me and that I would do great things with my life.

Because teachers rarely know how their effort impacts students’ lives, I sent Miss Matulis an email thanking her for being such an excellent teacher. In the email, I also described my life since fifth grade and my future career in education policy. Here is her response:

“Again, thank you for writing.  A teacher always hopes his/her efforts make a difference, but you don’t ever know to what extent until someone like you lets us know!  You have made my day.  As soon as I got this, I ran up to show Jeff!  I will be printing out this letter and saving it.  It was truly a gift!  I hope I am still the same type of teacher you remember!  I certainly try.

Well, it is great to hear from you, and I feel so honored that you took the time to share those words with me!  It means so much!  I hope to hear from you again, and I am excited to know that one of my students will be supporting education in the future!  Wow..that is really weird to comprehend!  Weird…but cool!”

We all had exceptional and inspirational teachers who changed our lives. These teachers need to know how important they are for their students’ futures. So what I would ask you to do, then, is send a brief email to your Miss Matulis. It will make his or her day!

Again, thank you Miss Matulis.

(I also found out what happened to Mrs. ____. Our school had a yearly book sale, which Mrs. ____ managed. When the district office reviewed the program’s financial records, they noticed some discrepancies between the projected profit and the amount actually deposited. It turns out Mrs. _____ had been skimming off a portion of the proceeds for more than a decade! Though this sounds like a movie script, it actually did happen)

(Sorry, one more thing. After you email your Miss Matulis, please post the response in the comment section. It will be cool to see the reactions.)

Mike Poletika

IPS Diploma Type Study

Check out this Indy Star article about a new study on college readiness and high school diploma type.

Indiana offers three types of degrees–Academic Honors, Core 40, and general. In this IUPUI study of IPS schools, the authors examine what effects a diploma type may have on a student’s college or career readiness. As could be expected, students with an Honors degree are more likely to go to college. But the college matriculation rates differ considerably between diploma types. 93% of Academic Honors recipients enter college, while only 65% of Core 40 degree holders are college bound, and a paltry 47% of general degree students went to college. Visit the Indy Star’s website to find more information about the authors’ conclusions and the policy implications.

Issues in Rural Education

Rural school districts face unique challenges. Approximately 17% of the nation’s population, 51 million people, live in rural communities, which have 19.4% of American school-age children. With population growth rates significantly lower than urban and suburban communities, schools serving these communities are expected to meet Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) requirements but must make do with proportionately declining federal, state, and local funding allocated on a per pupil basis. To ensure they meet AMO standards, rural districts must devise programs that improve standardized test scores while doing so with fewer resources.

Rural districts not only face declining ordinary funding but also have difficulty receiving supplemental state and federal grants. The Obama administration’s focus on competitive education grants awarded through its signature Race to the Top program leaves rural districts at a competitive disadvantage. To be eligible to apply, a district must have at least 2,500 students or apply through a consortium that pools enrollment figures from multiple districts. Requiring rural districts take this additional step poses coordination problems in the application process, difficulties in allocating grant money if the consortium receives an award, and problems with implementing policies  across districts agreed to in the application. The US Department of Education has made accommodations for rural districts by creating the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which gives the US Secretary of Education flexibility in administrating grants for rural districts.

Due to the distance from urban areas and the accompanying amenities, rural districts often have difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers. Lacking funds to create attractive compensation packages that would appeal to individuals not raised in similar communities, administrators must rely on a smaller talent pool. Logistically, distance makes establishing high quality non-traditional public schools, like KIPP academies, which typically serve inner-city youth, a less viable option. In rural communities, high speed internet is often less accessible, which makes establishing blended learning and virtual schools more difficult.

However, these two models do provide a more viable option of exercising school choice than does establishing rural charters or allowing public school students to enroll in private schools through a voucher program. Students who participate in blended learning receive in-class instruction while also doing a portion of their work on computers. Because smaller, rural schools have fewer faculty members, advanced courses, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, may be unavailable to high achieving students. By allowing students to enroll in AP or IB classes remotely, these students will be able to progress at a similar rate as their peers in larger schools with more course offerings.

Virtual schools are student directed online education programs facilitated by an instructor, intended to provide accelerated or supplemental instruction. As the New York Times points out, evidence about virtual schools is quite mixed. Student teacher ratios, in some circumstances, approach anywhere from 70-100 students to 1 teacher, and proprietary providers are often accused of skimping to generate greater profits. But virtual schools do offer non-traditional students a means to learn without having to attend regular classes. While blended learning and virtual schooling have potential to provide rural students with supplemental or alternative approaches to learning, parents and teachers must be careful in choosing students who exhibit the drive and ability for self-directed learning.

Another proposed method of improving rural education is to create community schools, which provide social services to the community in addition to educating students. The rationale behind this approach is to monitor how students are cared for, to improve overall community well-being, and to cut overhead costs, freeing resources to be employed for instructional purposes. Parents receiving state benefits will be required to visit their student’s school, thus making them more likely to participate in school activities. However, there are difficulties in administrating this type of school financially. Incorporated schools have their own revenue streams that must be integrated with service providers’ resources to create an equitable distribution of expenditures. But the model is promising in that student achievement is not solely based on in-class instruction but also involves living circumstances, like nutrition and access to health care.

Given the geographic dispersion of rural communities, it is difficult for rural reformers to have their voices heard in statehouses. Legislatures convening in large cities have proof of under performing urban schools before their eyes, reducing rural advocates ability to advance their policy agendas. For rural education to improve, lawmakers must take into consideration the unique circumstances facing districts that serve nearly 20% of the nation’s children.

Mike Poletika


This past Friday EDPOSA visited the Indianapolis KIPP Academy, a member of the charter school network that is often cited as the model for the charter school sector. As a whole, KIPP academies are remarkably successful in providing excellent education to some of nation’s most underserved students, who, without extraordinary interventions, would most likely fail to graduate. With the national graduation rate hovering around 72 to 75 percent, the fact that KIPP students graduate from high school at a rate approaching 95 percent is quite impressive. But like public education in general, there is variation within the KIPP network.

During our conversation with Emily Pelino, the executive director of KIPP Indianapolis, we learned about the troubled history of KIPP Indy. A few years back KIPP Indy almost had its charter revoked as a result of not meeting the terms of its authorization agreement. The exigent circumstances led the board to have a wholesale change of the faculty and administration. Only four of sixteen faculty members were retained and ties with the entire administration were severed, essentially creating an entirely new school organizationally. Remarkably, the school has turned around and received an “A” during its annual review. In light of this success, the KIPP network has given Pelino authorization to begin working to expand the impact of KIPP in Indiana. Ultimately she hopes to open several more academies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and would like to enroll around 2,200 students, which would be around 8% of the current IPS population.

But how do KIPP schools achieve what traditional public schools often cannot?

Once you step in the door, you quickly notice a culture quite different from other urban schools. The school is orderly to the point where it almost feels like a correctional facility, but the students do not appear to mind. This sense of discipline is reinforced by developing personality characteristics needed to be successful in the working world, which is evident by signs hanging on walls throughout the building urging values like “commitment” and “generosity.”

Not subject to collective bargaining agreement, the school can experiment with an unconventional organizational structure. Monday through Thursday students and teachers are in school until five in the afternoon, while having a shorter day on Friday, and students must also agree to a half day on Saturday. Parents are given teachers’ cell phone numbers and must agree to actively participate in school activities. Pelino stated there was no magic formula that makes KIPP academies so successful, merely a great deal of hard work and a no excuses attitude that pervades the school.

While the results are undeniable, there are several valid critiques of the KIPP model. Many KIPP academies rely extensively on external funding to supplement the relatively low governmental funding pervasive in urban schools. In lean times or when grants run out, these schools are susceptible to revenue shortfalls, which could be financially crippling. Pelino has taken a different approach and has chosen to rely mostly on federal, state, and local funding to avoid this very situation.

Another critique often levied against KIPP academies and charter schools in general is that they are selective in their admissions process and often counsel out problem students who then return to the general public school sector. While Pelino did not deny that this is a concern, she did provide an interesting perspective on how her school manages these issues. Because KIPP Indy performed so poorly during the previous administration, she and her colleagues had to actively recruit any student who would be willing to take the opportunity to opt out of IPS. There was so little interest initially that there was fear the school might not have met the attendance threshold required in the school’s charter and by the state, but she now believes her school is now at a stable enrollment level. Hopefully the school will continue to grow to the point where a lottery will be required to determine who is admitted. KIPP Indy certainly has some work to do, but it’s definitely on the right track.

Mike Poletika